An urgent priority must now be to develop a plan and a roadmap to open schools safely. (Representative image)
India is one of the few countries where schools are closed the longest due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of July 2021, around 175 countries had opened schools. In many countries, including France, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands, most schools – especially primary schools – had remained open even during the height of the pandemic or had only been closed for a short time. very short duration.
Seventeen months after the start of the pandemic, there is ample evidence of damage to children caused by prolonged school closures. UNESCO estimated that each month of absence from school results in a learning loss of 2 months. The past 17 months have put children back by almost 34 months. An analysis by the Asian Development Bank pointed out that each year of schooling lost equates to 9.7% less salary in the future.
There are many studies on the impact of school closures on learning. A McKinsey report concluded that the school’s closure in the second quarter of 2020 put students up to six months behind their cohort in academic milestones compared to peers who took in-person classes. The learning loss was higher for math than for reading and higher among disadvantaged groups. A study in the Netherlands found that by studying at home, children aged eight to 11 made little or no progress in their learning, with disadvantaged groups having the worst results.
There is evidence of the impact of school closures on children’s emotional and mental health. During the pandemic, homebound children experienced family challenges and abuse. In the United States and the United Kingdom, studies have reported an increase in suicide in students and children starting to take antidepressants. A report from UNICEF India in May 2020 noted that parents of one-third of primary school children and half of secondary school children noted that their child’s mental and socio-emotional health had been compromised. The ChildLine helpline number received 50% more calls, many for protection or related to child marriage.
Children are naturally protected against severe COVID-19
The coronavirus (SARS CoV2) enters the human body through the nose and mouth, then travels to the lungs to develop moderate to severe disease. Although children are infected (the virus reaches their nose and throat), they do not have sufficiently developed receptors in their lungs – angiotensin-II or ACE-II converting enzyme receptors – which the virus needs to get into the body and make a person sick. This is one reason why children get infected but don’t develop symptoms or get sick. A healthy child has a very low risk, ranging from 100 to 8,000 times less than adults, depending on the age group.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, UK, studied data from 137 million school-aged children in the US and Europe and concluded that COVID-19 in children of age school is less than half the risk of seasonal flu and 20 times less risk of death. through unintentional injuries. Schools in Sweden had not been closed during the pandemic and yet they did not report even a single child death from COVID-19.
It is on the basis of this and other evidence that UNICEF and UNESCO in a joint statement from July 2021, said that for pandemic-related restrictions, schools should be the last to close and the first to open.
Children are already at low risk. Then the results of the Fourth National Serological Survey, conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research, reported that 67.6% of the Indian population has antibodies to the virus and children have a similar infection rate (therefore protected now) as adults. This has been corroborated by numerous other state-specific and local investigations.
In reality, children play with their friends in urban areas (apartments, settlements, alleyways in slums) as well as in villages. With schools closed, many attend in-person classes, which are often crowded. The only thing children are deprived of is formal schooling.
Impact of the prolonged school closure
Online learning is a poor substitute for face-to-face lessons. Evidence from various parts of the world shows that distance education has a negative impact on learning. A pre-pandemic study in the United States showed that students in online courses lost 0.1 to 0.4 standard deviations on standardized tests compared to students in the traditional school. Children are also deprived of holistic learning that includes behavioral and social skills and physical and mental well-being. Children learn when they meet, communicate and interact with each other in person, in real-life scenarios such as schools. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation of 16,000 students in five states in the 6-11 age group, 92% lost a specific language skill and 82% lost some math skills.
Even before the pandemic, the quality of education in Indian schools (public and private) was not rated very high. However, the pandemic has further widened the gap between the learning ability of students attending different types of schools and from different socio-economic strata. There is also a health aspect to the problem of closing schools. About 12 million poor children used to prepare midday meals in schools. With the closure of schools, children’s education and nutritional status are affected.
Then, social threats such as child labor and child marriage would have increased. It is feared that many poor children will never return to school. It is a silent crisis unfolding and we must take urgent action.
Concerns about opening schools in India unfounded
Indian governments are either reluctant or slow to open schools. This was in part influenced by the fierce second wave and the projections for the third wave. However, governments are influenced by false and now discredited storythat the third wave would disproportionately affect children. Some of the public’s perceptions have been influenced by misleading headlines about the number of children infected. It is undeniable that children are infected and can test positive for COVID-19. However, it is not the infection, but the proportion of children with severe illness that matters. Fortunately, the proportion of children who contract moderate to severe illness is very low. We have developed a scientific understanding that children are not susceptible to serious illness. Only children with a pre-existing condition or those undergoing treatment for another condition are slightly more at risk. We need to pay more attention to these children. A healthy child has a very low risk of serious illness.
There are many other unfounded fears about the opening of schools. One group demands that all children be immunized; another is worried they might be carrying the virus home. None of these elements are supported by evidence. Vaccination of children is not a prerequisite for opening schools. Schools are open in over 175 countries, but no country administers vaccines to children under 12. There are studies from the United States, Italy and other European countries countries that the risk of a child becoming infected at school is similar to the risk at home and much lower than the risk in all other settings. The risk of children bringing the infection home is very low and can be further minimized by vaccinating adult family members.
The opening of schools is only a logical step and an urgent need
The ongoing school closure is arguably the worst and longest disruption in education in India. More than two-thirds of Indian families do not have access to smartphones, computers or the Internet. For them, online courses are a distant dream.
India is one of the few countries where everything seems to be opening up but where schools continue to be closed. A few Indian states have started to consider opening schools, but the pace is painfully slow. We began to resume our lives with the necessary precautions. With a low risk of illness in children, schools in Indian states should open immediately. The priority should be to open primary schools before secondary schools. Surveys in a few Indian cities have reported that 50 to 80% of parents in various cities are ready to send their children to school. Those who have access to all online learning tools can continue online learning for their children. However, this discussion must be guided not by an individual perspective but by a ‘societal perspective’ and each of us must think of the nearly 70% of children, mainly from rural areas, urban slums and other disadvantaged groups. who face maximum learning and nutritional loss. , due to the prolonged closure of the school.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a reality, with many unknowns, including its duration. Then SARS CoV2 will exist for many years to come. We cannot sit back and wait for a solution that is still in the future or for the problem to go away. In the ongoing pandemic, there is a low risk of infection even if someone is staying at home. There are many more benefits to bringing children back to classroom learning. Indian states urgently need to restart schools. The discussion should now turn to how to open schools safely.
Dr Chandrakant Lahariya (MBBS, MD), physician and epidemiologist by training, is a public policy expert with nearly two decades of professional experience, including working with the United Nations system, for 13 years. He tweets @DrLahariya and is available at [email protected], to answer questions and concerns from parents, principals and teachers.
This is the first in a four part series on COVID-19 and schools in India.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV assumes no responsibility in this regard.